Broken plural

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In linguistics, a broken plural (or internal plural) is an irregular plural form of a noun or adjective found in the Semitic languages and other Afroasiatic languages such as Berber. Broken plurals are formed by changing the pattern of consonants and vowels inside the singular form. They contrast with sound plurals (or external plurals), which are formed by adding a suffix. It is distinct from Germanic umlaut, a form of vowel mutation found in Germanic languages.

There have been a variety of theoretical approaches to understanding these processes and varied attempts to produce systems or rules that can systematize these plural forms.[1]

While the phenomenon is known from several Semitic languages, nowhere has it become as productive as in Arabic.


In Arabic, the regular way of making a plural for a masculine noun is adding the suffix -ūn[a] (for the nominative) or -īn[a] (for the accusative and genitive) at the end. For feminine nouns, the regular way is to add the suffix -āt. However, not all plurals follow these simple rules. One class of nouns in both spoken and written Arabic produce plurals by changing the pattern of vowels inside the word, sometimes also with the addition of a prefix or suffix. This system is not fully regular, and it is used mainly for masculine non-human nouns; human nouns are pluralized regularly or irregularly.

Broken plurals are known as jam‘ taksīr (جَمْعُ تَكْسِيرٍ, literally "plural of breaking") in Arabic grammar. These plurals constitute one of the most unusual aspects of the language, given the very strong and highly detailed grammar and derivation rules that govern the written language. Broken plurals can also be found in languages that have borrowed words from Arabic, for instance Persian, Pashto, Turkish, Kurdish, Azerbaijani, and Urdu. Sometimes in these languages the same noun has both a broken plural Arabic form and a local plural. E.g. in Pashto the word for "purpose" (مطلب) matlab can be pluralised in either its Arabic form مطالب matālib for more formal, High Pashto, or the plural مطلبونه matlabūna in everyday speech. (Cf. the treatment of Latin words in English; e.g. the plural of index is either indices or indexes, the latter being more informal.)

In Persian this kind of plural is called jam'-e mokassar (جَمِع مُکَسَر, literally "broken plural").

Full knowledge of these plurals can come only with extended exposure to the language, though a few rules can be noted. One study computed the probability that the pattern of vowels in the singular would predict the pattern in the broken plural (or vice versa) and found values ranging from 20% to 100% for different patterns.[2]

A statistical analysis of a list of the 3000 most frequent Arabic words shows that 978 (59%) of the 1670 most frequent nominal forms take a sound plural, while the remaining 692 (41%) take a broken plural.[3] Another estimate of all existing nominal forms gives over 90,000 forms with a sound plural and just 9540 with a broken one.[3]


Semitic languages typically utilize triconsonantal roots, forming a "grid" into which vowels may be inserted without affecting the basic root.

Here are a few examples; note that the commonality is in the root consonants (capitalized), not the vowels.

  • KiTāB كِتَاب "book" → KuTuB كُتُب "books"
  • KāTiB كَاتِب "writer, scribe" → KuTTāB كُتَّاب "writers, scribes"
  • maKTūB مَكْتُوْب "letter" → maKāTīB مَكَاتِيب "letters"
  • maKTaB مَكْتَب "desk, office" → maKāTiB مَكَاتِب "offices"
note: these four words all have a common root, K-T-Bك – ت – ب‎ "to write"

Patterns in Arabic[edit]

Example Transliteration Plural Transliteration Other examples Notes
CiCāC CuCuC كِتَاب kitāb (book) كُتُب kutub (books)
CaCīCah سَفِينَة safīna (ship) سُفُن sufun (ships) juzur (islands),
CaCīC سَبِيل sabīl (path) سُبُل subul (paths)
CuCCah CuCaC غُرْفَة ġurfa (room) غُرَف ġuraf (rooms)
CaCCah شَقَّة šaqqa (apartment) شُقَق šuqaq (apartment)
CiCC CiCaC قِطّ qiṭṭ (cat) قِطَط qiṭaṭ (cats)
CvCC CuCūC قَلْب qalb (heart) قُلُوب qulūb (hearts) funūn (arts), buyūt (houses)
عِلْم ʻilm (science) عُلُوم ʻulūm (sciences)
جُحْر juḥr (hole) جُحُور juḥūr (holes)
CvCC CiCāC كَلْب kalb (dog) كِلَاب kilāb (dogs)
ظِلّ ẓill (shadow) ظِلَال ẓilāl (shadows)
رُمْح rumḥ (spear) رِمَاح rimāḥ (spears)
CaCaC جَمَل jamal (camel) جِمَال jimāl (camels)
CaCuC رَجُل rajul (man) رِجَال rijāl (men)
CvCC ʼaCCāC يَوْم yawm (day) أَيَّام ʼayyām (days) ʼarbāb (masters)
حِلْم ḥilm (prudence) أَحْلَام ʼaḥlām (meaning minds)
رُبْع rubʻ (quarter) أَرْبَاع ʼarbāʻ (quarters) ʼaʻmāq (deeps)
CaCaC سَبَب sabab (cause) أَسْبَاب ʼasbāb (causes) ʼawlād (boys),
CaCaCah وَرَقَة waraqa (paper) أَوْرَاق ʼawrāq (papers) ʼašjār (trees)
CaCūC ʼaCCiCah عَمُود ʻamūd (pole) أَعْمِدَة ʼaʻmidah (poles) Ends with taʼ marbutah
CaCīC ʼaCCiCāʼ صَدِيق ṣadīq (friend) أَصْدِقَاء ʼaṣdiqāʼ (friends)
CaCīC CuCaCā' سَعِيد saʻīd (happy) سُعَدَاء suʻadāʼ(happy) wuzarāʼ (ministers) mostly for adjectives and occupational nouns
CāCiC CuCCāC كَاتِب kātib (writer) كُتَّاب kuttāb (writers) ṭullāb (students)
Gemination of the second root; mostly for the active participle of Form I verbs
CāCiCah CawāCiC قَائِمَة qāʼima (list) قَوَائِم qawāʼim (lists) bawārij (battleships)
CāCūC CawāCīC صَارُوخ ṣārūḫ (rocket) صَوَارِيخ ṣawārīḫ (rockets) ḥawāsīb (computers)
CiCāCah CaCāʼiC رِسَالَة risāla (message) رَسَائِل rasāʼil (messages)
CaCīCah جَزِيرَة jazīrah (island) جَزَائِر jazāʼir (islands) haqāʼib (suitcases),
CaCCaC CaCāCiC دَفْتَر daftar (notebook) دَفَاتِر dafātir (notebooks) applies to all four-literal nouns with short second vowel
CuCCuC فُنْدُق funduq (hotel) فَنَادِق fanādiq (hotels)
maCCaC maCāCiC مَلْبَس malbas (apparel) مَلَابِس malābis (apparels) makātib (offices) Subcase of previous, with m as first literal
maCCiC مَسْجِد masjid (mosque) مَسَاجِد masājid (mosques) manāzil (houses)
miCCaCah مِنْطَقَة minṭaqa (area) مَنَاطِق manāṭiq (areas)
CvCCv̄C CaCāCīC صَنْدُوق ṣandūq (box) صَنَادِيق ṣanādīq (boxes) applies to all four-literal nouns with long second vowel
miCCāC maCāCīC مِفْتَاح miftāḥ (key) مَفَاتِيح mafātīḥ (keys) Subcase of previous, with m as first literal
maCCūC مَكْتُوب maktūb (message) مَكَاتِيب makātīb (messages)


In Hebrew, though all plurals must take either the sound masculine (-īm ־ים) or feminine (-ōt ־ות) plural suffixes, the historical stem alternations of the so-called segolate or consonant-cluster nouns between CVCC in the singular and CVCaC in the plural have often been compared to broken plural forms in other Semitic languages. Thus the form malkī מַלְכִּי "my king" in the singular is opposed to məlāxīm מְלָכִים "kings" in the plural.[4]

In addition, there are many other cases where historical sound changes have resulted in stem allomorphy between singular and plural forms in Hebrew (or between absolute state and construct state, or between forms with pronominal suffixes and unsuffixed forms etc.), though such alternations do not operate according to general templates accommodating root consonants, and so are not usually considered to be true broken plurals by linguists.[5]

Ge'ez (Ethiopic)[edit]

Broken plurals were formerly used in some Ethiopic nouns. Examples include ˁanbässa 'lion' with ˁanabəst 'lions', kokäb 'star' with kwakəbt 'stars', ganen 'demon' with aganənt 'demons', and hagar 'region' with ˀahgur 'regions'.[6] Some of these broken plurals are still used in Amharic today, but are generally seen as archaic.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert R. Ratcliffe. 1998. The “Broken” Plural Problem in Arabic and Comparative Semitic: Allomorphy and analogy in non-concatenative morphology. John Benjamins.
  2. ^ Ratcliffe, Robert R. (1998). The "Broken" Plural Problem in Arabic and Comparative Semitic. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. pp. 72–79. ISBN 9027236739. 
  3. ^ a b Boudelaa, Sami; Gaskell, M. Gareth (21 September 2010). "A re-examination of the default system for Arabic plurals". Language and Cognitive Processes. 17 (3): 321–343. doi:10.1080/01690960143000245. 
  4. ^ "Ge'ez (Axum)" by Gene Gragg in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages edited by Roger D. Woodard (2004) ISBN 0-521-56256-2, p. 440.
  5. ^ "Hebrew" by P. Kyle McCarter Jr. in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages edited by Roger D. Woodard (2004) ISBN 0-521-56256-2, p. 342.
  6. ^ pp. 64, 280, 198, 216. Wolf Leslau. 1991. Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopia). Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz.

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